I’ve always wanted to write. Even as a fifth grader, I tried my hand at expressing what I was feeling through words on the page, desperately hoping that someone, anyone, would read and understand and throw me a life preserver to keep me from being sucked into the vortex of my family’s saga. Whenever I felt as if I was going under — it was always a teacher who saved me.
Back in fifth grade, when I must have failed my vision test before the start of school, I had to get my first pair of glasses. I remember the diagnosis was astigmatism. And though I didn’t know what that meant, I was absolutely clear that I did NOT want glasses. My father, on the other hand, was clear: I was getting glasses. He took me to Sears or some such place and I was forced to choose from the frames that were on sale — all of the choices completely awful. Even if you’ve NEVER worn glasses, you’d recognize the frames I ended up with — truly hideous, white with silver flecks, sweeping upward at the outer edges…butterfly glasses, they were called; can you picture them? And as if the torture of having to wear glasses wasn’t bad enough in my fragile fifth-grade life, it got worse when I met my new teacher, Miss Kimble.
“Miss Kimble is great on neatness.”
I can still hear her booming voice echoing those words, “Boys and girls? Miss Kimble is GREAT on neatness. Class, write that in your notebooks and when you go home today, I want you to tell your parents: Miss KIM-ble is g-RRReat on neatness.” Between the gawky eyeglasses and Miss Kimble, my ten-year-old life was in ruins.
From that very first day and every night thereafter, I’d complain about Miss Kimble and her dictatorial ways. Everyone had to place their books on the left side of their desks — neatly; everyone had to write the same story about the same characters; Miss Kimble even made everyone go to the bathroom at the same time! Though my parents exchanged silent glances, my father warned me not to talk against my teacher. In his mind, the teacher (like the customer) was always right. Still, they looked concerned. Unlike my entire school experience to date, for the first time, I didn’t want to go to school in the mornings. Sullen and depressed, I got ready, dragging my feet as I walked slowly out the front door each day. I felt doomed. The glasses only made things look worse.
Though the school day is five hours long, after her horrific opening statement, I never heard much else the dreaded Miss Kimble said. Her introduction remains the only thing I remember about my fifth-grade experience at Washington Elementary. But to be truthful, my stay there only lasted eight days. On day eight, my prayers were answered.
While Miss Kimble was droning on about something or other, a note was delivered to her which she stopped to read and report to the class: I was to gather ALL my things, she said snippily, and report to the office. I was being transferred. I couldn’t believe my ears! I was escaping from the clutches of Miss Kimble! I felt incredibly lucky as I packed my notebooks and papers. Smiling with pity at my classmates, stuck behind in Miss Kimble’s neatness, I left the room. For years after, through all sorts of childhood resentments and hatreds, whenever I doubted that my father loved me, I held on to that rescue. In that moment, ugly eyeglasses seemed a small price to pay.
At B.F.Gibbs, Mrs. Tworsky was everything Miss Kimble was not. From the second I entered her classroom she smiled and was encouraging. Everything about her was wonderful. She made the opening of each book seem a treasure, waiting to be discovered. Her writing assignments were adventurous explorations for my mind. She sounded and looked gentle and kind, even soft. She was exactly the presence I needed in my troubled life. My transfer into the arms of Mrs. Tworsky was a return to the sheltering, nurturing world of school I had always known. Once again it became the haven I had always known; a place where I could freely expressed myself. In her class, I began writing and under her guidance, I wrote my heart out.
I never questioned why Mrs. Tworsky kept me in at recess to discuss what I had written. I simply thought she was interested in my stories and what I had to say.
“In your story, you have the characters living in a domed city on Mars,” she recounted. “It seems a very desolate, barren place you describe. I liked that you had their water supplied by plants growing water-filled pods. That was an interesting detail. Now tell me again, what was outside the dome?”
“Nothing,” I replied, “an empty atmosphere with no oxygen.”
“And at the end of your story, the girl leaves the dome. Is that right?”
“Why does she do that?”
“Because she wants to die,” I explained matter-of-factly.
Years later, after working in the business world, I fulfilled a dream that Mrs. Tworsky seeded. I became a teacher. As I faced my first class, thirty-one strong, scared that I wouldn’t be able to manage, that I was in way over my head, I tried to be what all my former teachers had been: challenging, caring, dedicated to standards, expecting the most. In the days ahead, I pulled on the lessons taught to me by my many teachers. Finally, months into that first year, as I surveyed my class working excitedly on our first newsletter, complete with school wide surveys on the worst cafeteria food, interviews about our planned field trip, even an original comic strip by a boy named Jabbar, I smiled.
Looking around, there were kids scattered everywhere: at tables, under tables, and hunched over tables. Boys were bunched in a corner struggling with layout; girls were arguing over words and subheads. The noise was at times overwhelming but the appearance was one of controlled chaos swirling around me. From kindergarten through fifth grade, I had gotten a lot from my teachers. Now that I’m older, with or without glasses, I could see that Miss Desmond, Miss Lubelle, Mrs. Baummeister, Miss Swinburne, Miss Micklis, and of course, Mrs. Tworsky, would have been proud — because after all, neatness was never my forte.
[The names in this piece have NOT been changed; I want to applaud the innocent and disgrace the guilty.]